'Spirit of solidarity' saved Israel during Yom Kippur War, says Ehud Barak

The former Israeli PM recalls his experiences as a tank commander on the 50th anniversary of the 1973 conflict


Ehud Barak was a 31-year-old graduate student at the School of Engineering at Stanford, California, in early October 1973 when he was woken at 4am by a call from the Israeli embassy in Washington.

Picking up the phone, he heard the voice of Motta Gur, the embassy’s military attaché. “Ehud, there is a war at home. But I don’t think we’re missing a serious one,” he said.

Barak would go on to become prime minister in 1999, but back then he was a lieutenant-colonel in the Israeli special forces, having just ended his term as commander of Sayeret Matkal, the equivalent of the British SAS.

“What do you mean by we?” Barak responded. “You’re here in a formal role, you have a job to do. I’m a young career officer in the chain of command, I cannot afford to miss even a non-serious war.

"So I’m flying back and I’ll call you from New York.”

By the time he got to New York, Barak saw around a thousand other young Israelis who had, like him, rushed there to try to get a seat on the only El Al 707 set to depart for Israel.

He called Gur back as promised, who told him: “You’re right, we’re missing a very serious war. The Syrians are already at the gates of Nafach.”

Barak understood well the severity of the situation: Nafach was the Syrian village where Israel’s central command post for the Golan Heights was located.

Knowing that their flight could only accommodate 170 people at most, the El Al station chief asked him to advise them on who should fly. “I had to choose from the thousand people,” he said.

“I chose the pilots and the commanders who had just left the army. And unlike me — I was called formally by the embassy — they just heard about it and immediately left whatever they’d been doing: studying at universities, visiting family, working as firefighters in the forests of Canada, whatever. This spirit of solidarity is what saved Israel in this war.

“It caught me half a year later, when I flew back to my family after the war, that many of them, probably several dozen, did not come back, or came back in coffins, and some of them were missing in action.

"No one knew where they died. They came and I made the decision about them. It was quite a heavy kind of memory to bear.”

Barak arrived back in Israel late at night, and headed straight for the Kiriya, the command post of the armed forces in a bunker in the centre of Tel Aviv.

“I knew the place because as a commander of the equivalent of the SAS you very often meet the top echelon of the armed forces.

"As I entered, it felt quite bizarre: people looked like shadows of themselves from several months earlier, as if they’d aged by 10 years in the last four months since I had seen them before I left for Stanford.”

He met Chief of Staff David ‘Daddo’ Elazar: “He was the only one who projected self-confidence and a spirit of optimism, a kind of clarity that ‘It’s very tough and it will probably get much tougher, but we will win in the end’.”

Because of his previous experience commanding a tank platoon, Barak was placed in command of Battalion 100, an improvised armoured unit manned by reservists who had arrived from abroad to join the war effort.

They were sent to the Sinai in old tanks taken out of maintenance facilities, to help prepare for the crossing of the Suez Canal.

There was internal debate over when and how to attempt the crossing but Barak was ordered to head for the so-called Chinese Farm area — a strategic point on the bank — once the necessary equipment had arrived.

The Israelis had called the area the Chinese Farm as a result of a misunderstanding: “It was an area with a Japanese investment in agriculture.

"The letters seemed similar to us, so we call it the Chinese Farm,” Barak explained.

“What was missing in the previous days was the heavy equipment which is needed in order to cross: tanks cannot swim, you have to take them over. Infantry can go in small dinghies, but for tanks you have to have special equipment.

"It was only on October 14 or 15 that the heavy amphibious vehicles arrived, which can go into the water and take two or three tanks over the canal, and with enough of them they create a pontoon bridge made of all of them.

"And then a day or two later there will come a heavier bridge that was originally prepared for that purpose.”

The 890th Battalion of the Parachute Brigade under the command of Itzik Mordechai had been sent to scan the area and take out the Egyptian SU-100 cannons that threatened the Israeli tanks. But the paratroopers had encountered heavy fighting on the sandy battlefield and found themselves trapped under heavy fire.

“They originally were told that they were just going to clean up the area of some small squads at night waiting to ambush Israeli tanks on the road to the crossing point.

"But it transpired that the roads were full of organised deployments of Egyptian infantry, led by none other than [Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi, who decades later became commander of the armed forces,” Barak said.

Arriving at the break of dawn, Barak’s Battalion 100 had trouble locating the paratroopers.

“It was an area of probably 50 square kilometres. I knew the area from before. We couldn’t see them. They were in deep trouble. They’d been fighting already for almost six hours, at very close quarters with the Egyptians.”

Barak spoke with the battalion commander over his radio, recognising his voice.

“Israel is a very familiar kind of army, very small, and you know all the officers about your age or rank. So I knew him personally, and I heard this voice on the communication when I called him to tell him that I’m coming, and it became clear for me from the freezing tone of voice that he was in real trouble.”

Thanks to a smoke grenade, Battalion 100 was able to find him. This was the signal for the start of the rescue operation. Barak led the first company with his most experienced tank commander, Moshe Suknik. But they soon encountered fierce fighting in far from ideal circumstances.

“We couldn’t even shoot because we were afraid to hit our own boys. There were Egyptians already in foxholes. Some foxholes were already connected with small, short trenches, and we stopped in them and started to shoot. We found ourselves exchanging fire with tanks.”

Russian-made Sagar missiles were also flying towards them: “You see it coming as a kind of reddish-bluish kind of glow around something that jumps kind of hectically, because it’s navigated by the hand of the guy who launched it.

"If it hits, the whole tank explodes, but usually there are more misses than hits.”

Under heavy fire, they worked hard to rescue the paratroopers and bring them to safety in the dry agricultural irrigation trenches 10 to 50 yards behind them.

A remnant of the Japanese agricultural presence, they provided a two-metre-deep protective trench for the beleaguered soldiers.

But the missiles were being launched from some distance away, making it impossible to take them out at their source. “It became very tough. We started to suffer losses,” Barak recalled.

They returned fire using Uzi rifles and grenades. Projectiles hit the turret and the body of his tank. “Leading men under fire, against fire, is probably the most demanding human role.

"The air is filled with the smoke from the exploding vehicles. You feel the smell of human burnt flesh. It’s the kind of smell I remembered from ’67, from seven years before. It’s something that remains in your nostrils for years.”

Barak ordered the tank driver to run over the Egyptians in the foxholes around them. One aimed an RPG at them from a distance of only five metres, close enough to look them in the eye. Barak shot him before he could fire.

It was then that Barak discovered his friend Lieut-Col Yishai Yizhar had been hit. Yizhar had joined the mission despite not being trained in armoured combat.

But as a retired paratrooper from the 890th Battalion, he was determined to help his comrades. Barak tried to stem the flow of blood gushing from his neck, but was unable to save his friend, who quickly collapsed inside the tank. “He was a great person, and a good friend of mine for years before,” he recalled.

The fighting took a heavy toll: “Within 15 minutes, we lost 12 people and probably 35 or 40 wounded. About one third of the force was eliminated from the battle within 15 minutes.” But the battalion fought on, and within 24 hours successfully crossed the canal.

Once across, they were given the task of “opening the sky” for the Israeli air force: “My first mission beyond the canal was to go through the Egyptian line and go from six miles into there, behind their lines, to take some high hills,” Barak recalled.

From there, he was to take out the radar used by the Egyptian anti-aircraft batteries.

The Israelis’ presence so far behind their lines surprised the Egyptians. If Barak and his battalion had been underprepared for what they experienced at the Chinese Farm, they now had the edge over their adversaries.

“They shot only at the last tank, because it took them the whole column to go through them before they realised that these were Israeli tanks,” he said.

Once they had cleared the way for the Israeli planes, the danger was still far from over. “We were driving in a column of tanks and APCs towards the canal and back, and I saw the jet fighters over us.

"I was really worried they would identify us as Egyptian tanks, but, you know, for some reason we were lucky enough there was a munitions dump very close by, and they released the bombs over that.”

Over the following days, Barak fought deeper and deeper into Egypt behind the main body of the Egyptian army, until October 22, when they got the order to complete the mission within a few hours before an agreed ceasefire would start.

“For some reasons our leadership decided to attack the city of Suez,” he said.

“We had very tough fighting over there for the next two or three days. So basically, only on the 26th the fire ceased. We found ourselves quite exhausted, but very proud of what had been accomplished.

"We had removed the shadow of possible defeat.”

Calling his wife from Suez once the fighting had ended, Barak started to tell her the names of those who had fallen: “I was a military career officer, so we knew many of them,” he said.

“The 2,600 youngsters killed was a real shock. I remember her starting to cry over the phone and saying, ‘Wow, wow, it sounds like the Six Day War’.”
“No,” he replied, “it was much, much worse.”

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